Vietnam says it has detected a new coronavirus variant that is a hybrid of the Covid-19 virus variants first found in India and the UK and is easily transmissible by air.

In remarks on Saturday quoted by state-controlled media, Nguyen Thanh Long, the country’s health minister, said that genetic sequencing by the country’s National Institute of Hygiene and Epidemiology had detected at least four Covid-19 patients carrying the newly identified hybrid variant.

Le Thi Quynh Mai, the institute’s deputy head, said that the hybrid was not yet recorded by GISAID, the global initiative focused on sharing information about flu and other viruses, and did not yet have a name.

Vietnam’s Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh reportedly called for “urgent response measures amid the complicated developments of the pandemic”, which is now spreading through the industrial parks at the heart of Vietnam’s export-focused, FDI-driven economy. 

The B.1.617.2 variant first found in India is, according to global health officials, more easily transmissible than other previously detected variants. The B.1.1.7 first found in the UK was blamed for the severe wave of the virus that swept through the country last winter. 

According to the World Health Organisation, the chances of a virus mutating increase when it is circulating widely in a population and causing many infections.

Vietnam’s announcement comes as the communist-ruled country, which was commended last year by international health officials for containing Covid-19 successfully, contends with its sharpest spike yet on new infections.

The number of cases has more than doubled this month to over 6,900 with 47 deaths reported. The outbreak has prompted officials to impose new lockdowns in a country where for much of the past year life and business had returned largely to normal. 

Long said Vietnam’s new wave of infections was characterised by multiple sources of infections and the presence of different coronavirus variants. He said it was spreading quickly in industrial zones, including in Bac Ninh and Bac Giang, provinces adjoining the capital Hanoi where Samsung, Foxconn and other foreign investors have factories. 

Vietnam’s government said it would make vaccinating 240,000 workers in the two provinces a priority.

The country’s struggle with new infections and the hybrid variant come at a time when other Asian nations that had contained the spread of the virus during the first phase of the pandemic, including Taiwan and Thailand, struggle with rising infections.

Vietnamese authorities have vaccinated about 1m of the country’s 98m people with the AstraZeneca vaccine and have ordered more doses of the jab and Pfizer’s vaccine with the aim of having 150m vaccine doses available this year. 

Additional reporting by Pham Hai Chung in Hanoi

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